“We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short term signals: hearts, likes, thumbs up and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth. And instead, what it is is fake brittle popularity that’s short term and that leaves you even more, and admit it, vacant and empty before you did it. Because that enforces you into a vicious cycle where you’re like what’s the next thing that I need to do now, because I need it back. Think about that compounded by two billion people and then think about how then people react to then to the perceptions of others.”

— Chamath Palihapitiya, CEO of Social Capital


As digital technologies become deeply integrated into everyday life, consumers have become increasingly connected to the digital sphere,’ and businesses have sought ways in which to capitalize upon this growing trend. This work aims to bring Belk’s seminal theory of self-development into present day by connecting its concepts with those of customer loyalty formation, highlighting how a modernization of this theory explains the means by which present-day customers are forming attachments to digital goods and the brands and companies associated with them. 

Through analysis of both historical and current literature regarding self-development, self-expression, and object attachment, we explore how consumers form connections to digital possessions, and how this process has evolved alongside the growing technological integration of daily life. Armed with this knowledge, we offer three propositions on how digital self development will affect the marketplace, electronic word-of-mouth and customer loyalty in the future, and the opportunities in marketing analytics research to develop more accurate, nuanced metrics that can better encompass relevant aspects of consumers’ digital selves. Our intent is to expand upon existing loyalty literature by explaining how attachment is formed with digital objects, and highlight both the challenges and opportunities this creates in loyalty marketing analytics. 

Electronic word-of-mouth Increasing customer loyalty has remained one of the primary goals of marketers, thanks to the proven effects of customer loyalty on a business’s bottom line. Acquiring a new customer to replace an old one is anywhere between 5 and 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one—and increasing customer retention rates by a mere 5% can increase a company’s profits by 25% to 95%. A 2016 study found that members of customer loyalty programs generated between 12 and 18% more revenue for the respective business than those not enrolled. However, researchers have supported a variety of antecedents to customer loyalty such as customer satisfaction, trust, service quality, and perceived value, making it difficult to determine which factors provide the most opportunities for marketers to leverage. Despite this, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests psychological attachment is a key element in the development of loyalty towards a particular business or brand. The integration of one’s possessions into one’s sense of ‘self’ is not a new idea, but the increasingly interconnected world of the digital era and the growing popularity of social media technologies has changed how consumers create the psychological attachment to these possessions—in particular, because many of these possessions do not exist in the physical sense. As consumers in the digital sphere explore the ways in which they can create, customize, and share content with other users, groups, and businesses, the association and expression of these consumers’ ‘selves’ through brands, digitized symbols, and other non-physical products are becoming increasingly more prevalent. Due to the accessibility of social media for both users and businesses, this process of association has become much easier in the digital era, enhanced further by the customizability of content in the digital sphere. Rather than focusing solely on recent findings, we believe it is important to examine, in a historical context, the changes that have occurred in individual self-development, expression, and object attachment as a consequence of the nascence of digital technologies and social media. Our aim is to connect how the traditional paradigm of self-development has changed as a result of digital technologies, and how this knowledge applies to the formation of customer loyalty and encouragement of electronic word-of-mouth.

Through the historic lens of Belk’s (1988) seminal work on the concept of the ‘extended self,’ we examine how the extended self is developed and how it is shared with others. From here, the effects of digital and social media technologies on the process of self-development and self-expression are analyzed and discussed, with particular attention paid to the ways in which these traditional methods have changed as a result of the growing influence of the digital sphere. Motivations for socialization and generational differences are highlighted as drivers of these changes, enabling users to more easily fulfill the inherent psychological needs discussed in self-determination theory. 

With this knowledge as a foundation, we present three propositions as to how these changes in self-formation will affect marketing in the future and the possible opportunities for businesses and researchers to explore them. Finally, we offer suggestions on revisions to existing marketing analytics to account for the changes discussed prior, in order to better account for the effects of digital self-formation on inspiring positive eWOM and customer loyalty. From this review and synthesis of relevant literature on the self and social media, we aim to illustrate how self-development and expression have changed from the pre-digital era, how an understanding of these changes can be put into practice in the field of loyalty formation, and the future research avenues that can be explored in order to produce metrics that can account for these changes and their effects on eWOM and loyalty formation.

  • Extended self
  • Digital self
  • Customer loyalty
  • Object attachment
  • Social media